As part of our effort to reintegrate into American society and its culture, we’re spending part of our summer in the air conditioned retreat of the Paramount, a faithfully restored theater originally built in 1915 to host vaudeville as the Majestic and transformed in 1930 into a Baroque Revival movie palace, its present form.
The theater provides a retreat from both the heat and day-to-day reality into the bygone eras of Hollywood and foreign film classics. The films are replete with villains and heroes defined by art direction, staging and dialog that shorthands races, roles, conflicts, attitudes and passions into nifty set-piece scenes. This foreshortening of life’s challenges and irresolvable conflicts into tightly packaged, neatly wrapped, emotionally digestible, bite sized chunks contrasts with later eras’ films that showcased, if not celebrated, the irredeemable flaws of humanity on individual, societal, planetary and galactic scales. This latter film genre, while undoubtedly more accurate and reflective of the true nature of life, is much more challenging material, and over time often leads to a retreat into the simpler, soft-focus, one-way pursuit of the nostalgia of a “simpler time.”
As tempting as the seductive, simple packaging of human and national characteristics in film classics can be, they can also serve as a useful lens through which to view our modern world. For instance, this weekend’s fare included the celebrated artistic convergence of producer / director Elia Kazan and a troupe of talented actors, writers, composers, cinematographers, art directors and production professionals: 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire and 1954’s On The Waterfront.
Since I often retain an outside-looking-in perspective on the U.S., I sometimes derive different views of cultural artifacts than others around me here in the United States. Consequently, the primary roles in the two films, viewed back-to-back as a double feature, couldn’t help but jump out at me as parallels of the roles the United States is often cast in by the various countries on the geopolitical scene where we’ve spent time during the last decade.
The world’s rapidly developing economies, such as Brazil and Russia, as well as the merely developing nations, often see the U.S. as Father Barry, the righteous priest, constantly goading others to do the right thing, as he defines it. At best, the developing nations emphasize Father Barry’s courageous stand for virtue, freedom, honesty and integrity. At worst, they note that their labors in brutal conditions enable Father Barry’s institution its power, position and wealth.
Western Europe often casts the United States as Stanley Kowalski, the crude brute, ruled by his adolescent emotions, too immature for his physical strength, capable of little beyond browbeating, manipulation and abuse. Unequipped to rise beyond his commonness, he surrounds himself with equally low-life immigrants and rejects the only example of higher breeding, culture and lofty education he encounters.
Bombastic socialists, such as Hugo Chavez, popularize the identity of America as Johnny Friendly, the corrupt mob boss who rules his domain with an iron fist, brutally subjugating the masses through intimidation, economic marginalization, violence and death, while he and his henchmen wallow in wealth and power.
Other nations in Latin America are more nuanced in their casting of America as mobster. The rest of the region puts the United States in the role of The Boss of Bosses, who makes but a brief cameo appearance as the puppeteer behind the Johnny Friendlys of the world. In their view, America as The Boss of Bosses silently and mysteriously pulls the strings that control economies, rainfall and whether or not you have a flat tire on the way to work today through the omniscient, omnipresent and omni-powerful CIA.
Islamists portray the United States as Stella Kowalski, debauched and decadent, wife of Satan himself, ready and willing to bring forth further generations of depraved, bestial, godless Stanleys to further pollute the world. Stella, unable to resist the sinful allure of Stanley’s Satan, legitimizes all that is unclean and unholy and therefore has no place in a sanctified realm.
China and other nations, tribes and individuals vested in the current century’s geopolitical realities place the United States solidly in the starring role of Blanche DuBois. Blanche, born into unimaginable wealth, power and prestige, joined her forbears in squandering her remaining wealth. Relevant only in her own fantasy world, trapped in addiction and unable to face reality, she ends in a downward spiral of decay, denial and collapse.
People who view the United States in a positive light, and there are many more of them out there than the two dominant world-view narratives extant in America allow to be known, tend to cast the United States as Terry Malloy. Sure, Terry is simple minded, and he’s made some mistakes by choosing the wrong friends and being overly loyal to people he thought he could trust; but, then again, his is loyal and he is trusting and he is a guy who is willing to fight for, and lay his life on the line for, what he believes in. In fact, if Terry believes in you, he’ll lay his life on the line for you as well. Terrys are very rare on the geopolitical scene.
If Americans picked a role for the United States, they might pick good-hearted Harold “Mitch” Mitchell, who perhaps too late realizes he can’t go it alone and needs a partner, narrowly avoids being hoodwinked by a wily deceiver, but in the end stands up for his values and rejects his suitor as unworthy. That would be a fairly subtle reading of the role as applied to the United States, and Mitch is difficult to see as purely heroic.
Consequently, most Americans would probably also pick Terry Malloy, the closest role to purely heroic outside of the courageous, saintly Edie Doyle.
In the Hollywood ending to the movie On The Waterfront, Terry Malloy rises from his pummeling by Johnny Friendly’s gang, shakes off his injuries and triumphantly leads the newly independent dockworkers into a fresh, cleansed-of-past-sins era (cue swelling music in the Leonard Bernstein score).
In Budd Schulberg’s original screenplay and his subsequent novel version of the story, Terry Malloy is brutally murdered by the mob, the realpolitik power of the docks.
Only time will tell what role best suits the United States. And which ending will apply.
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A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
|Tennessee Williams||(original play “A Streetcar Named Desire”)|
Cast (in credits order) verified as complete
|Vivien Leigh||…||Blanche DuBois|
|Marlon Brando||…||Stanley Kowalski|
|Kim Hunter||…||Stella Kowalski|
|Karl Malden||…||Harold ‘Mitch’ Mitchell|
|Nick Dennis||…||Pablo Gonzales|
|Wright King||…||A Collector|
|Richard Garrick||…||A Doctor|
|Ann Dere||…||The Matron|
|Edna Thomas||…||The Mexican Woman|
|Mickey Kuhn||…||A Sailor|
|rest of cast listed alphabetically:|
|Mel Archer||…||Foreman (uncredited)|
|Dahn Ben Amotz||…||Bit Part (uncredited)|
|Marietta Canty||…||Giggling Woman with Eunice (uncredited)|
|Chester Jones||…||Street Vendor (uncredited)|
|Lyle Latell||…||Policeman (uncredited)|
|Maxie Thrower||…||Passerby (uncredited)|
|Charles Wagenheim||…||Passerby (uncredited)|
* * * * *
On The Waterfront (1954)
|Malcolm Johnson||(suggested by articles)|
Cast (in credits order) verified as complete
* * * * *
A Streetcar Named Desire
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